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Last-ditch meetings between White House and House GOP fail to avert contempt vote

Fast and Furious Exec_Angu.jpg

June 26, 2012: Attorney General Eric Holder speaks in Boston. With a vote looming to hold Holder in contempt of Congress, a House committee chairman is challenging President Barack Obamas claim of executive privilege, invoked to maintain secrecy for some documents related to a failed gun-tracking operation.AP

A pair of last-ditch meetings between the Obama administration and House Republicans failed to avert a scheduled contempt vote for Attorney General Eric Holder over the 'Fast and Furious' documents dispute.

A source familiar with the talks told Fox News that the Republicans met with administration officials twice Tuesday -- at the Justice Department and at the White House. The Justice Department showed GOP staff 14 documents on the failed anti-gunrunning operation, totaling about 30 pages.

House Oversight Committee Chairman and Republican Rep. Darrell Issa wants internal communications from February 2011, when the administration denied knowledge of gun-walking, to the end of that year, when officials acknowledged the denial was erroneous. Those documents covered a period after Fast and Furious had been shut down.

The documents at the heart of the current argument are not directly related to the workings of Operation Fast and Furious, which allowed guns to "walk" from Arizona to Mexico in hopes they could be tracked. The department has given Issa 7,600 documents on the operation.

A senior administration official claimed the documents were a representative sample of what Republicans were asking for.

At the end of one of the meetings, one source told Fox News, the Justice Department offered to provide all the documents requested in exchange for an assurance that the Republicans would close their contempt bid against Holder, but the GOP staff rejected the offer.

One Republican official told the Associated Press that the offerings shown by the Justice Department in the meeting weren't enough.

"The documents that were shown today did not shed any meaningful new light on the questions and interactions that took place at the Justice Department" after whistle-blowers told Congress that Fast and Furious allowed guns bought in Arizona to "walk" into Mexico, the official said.

But the move prompted criticism from the White House.

"This was a good faith effort to resolve this while still protecting the institutional prerogatives of the Executive Branch, often championed by these same Republicans criticizing us right now," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. "Unfortunately Republicans have opted for political theater rather than conduct legitimate Congressional oversight."

A senior administration official also said, the offer would have resulted in "unprecedented access to the documents."

Those attending the meeting included White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, legislative director Rob Nabors, Justice Department official Steven Reich and representatives of House Speaker John Boehner and Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa.

President Barack Obama has asserted a broad version of executive privilege to keep Justice Department documents secret. The Republican official said the House staff members asked for a log of documents that would be withheld, but the administration officials refused.

Now that the politically potent National Rifle Association is keeping score, some Democrats are expected to join House Republicans in supporting the contempt of Congress vote against Holder.

One of those Democrats, Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah, said, "Sadly, it seems that it will take holding the attorney general in contempt to communicate that evasiveness is unacceptable. It is a vote I will support."

The gun owners association injected itself last week into the stalemate over Justice Department documents demanded by the House Oversight Committee. The NRA said it supports the contempt resolution and will keep a record of how members vote.

An NRA letter to House members contended that the Obama administration "actively sought information" from Operation Fast and Furious to support its program to require dealers to report multiple rifle sales.

The program, which began last August, imposed the requirement for sales of specifically identified long guns in four border states: Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. A federal judge upheld the requirement.

Republicans want Holder to become the first attorney general to be cited by the House for contempt because he has refused to give the Oversight Committee all the documents it wants related to Operation Fast and Furious.

Unless a last-minute deal is worked out, always a possibility in Congress, the contempt vote Thursday would be the same day the Supreme Court is to announce its ruling on the legality of the nation's health care law.

A vote to hold Holder in contempt of Congress wouldn't send any documents to the Oversight Committee.

Obama invoked what is known as "deliberative process privilege," a claim designed to broadly cover executive branch documents. However Issa, in a letter to the president, said Obama was misusing the narrower "presidential communications privilege," which is reserved for documents to and from the president and his most senior advisers.

White House Spokesman Eric Schultz said Tuesday that Issa's analysis "has as much merit as his absurd contention that Operation Fast and Furious was created in order to promote gun control. Our position is consistent with executive branch legal precedent for the past three decades spanning administrations of both parties."

In Fast and Furious, agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased. Instead, the goal of gun-walking was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers who long had eluded prosecution and to dismantle their networks.

Gun-walking long has been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Fast and Furious.

The agents in Arizona lost track of several hundred weapons in Operation Fast and Furious. The low point of the operation came in Arizona in 2010, when U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a firefight with a group of armed Mexican bandits and two guns traced to the operation were found at the scene.

Fox News’ Mike Levine, Mike Emanuel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.